A new proposal to throw open Australia’s doors to permanent Pacific Islander migrants would be worth more than 40 times the value of current aid commitments and relocate one in five Pacific residents to Australia.
The proposal, from international policy think-tank the Lowy Institute, was prompted by what it describes as a “bleak" economic outlook for the region and a call from Malcolm Turnbull for a “step change” in engagement.
It also includes a more modest suggestion in which Australia attracts around 3000 Pacific Islanders per year to work permanently to deliver more benefits to the region by 2040 than the current aid program.
Jonathan Pryke, one of the report’s authors, said there was a "real need for change in the way we engage with the Pacific”.
Under the proposal, Pacific Islanders could move to Australia through a similar pathway to that which is currently enjoyed by New Zealanders.
Migrants would still have to pay their own way, pass a health and character test, and have restrictions on welfare access when they arrived.
"Under that scenario, we’d expect about 20 per cent of the Pacific’s population to migrate to Australia over the next 25 years,” Mr Pryke told ABC radio.
“This would bring over 40 times the benefit of our current aid program to these individuals just in terms of income.”
There is an existing seasonal worker program for Pacific Islanders to meet industry demand for workers mainly in the agricultural industry, but Mr Pryke said the take up has not been significant and opportunities in other sectors should be provided.
The report notes risks with the proposal, including the likely reduction in wages for low-skilled workers in Australia of between 2.5 and 5 per cent and the potential to create a "welfare-dependent underclass”. It notes the “mixed” outcomes of a program that allows large numbers of Samoans to live in New Zealand permanently.
Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are currently two of the three largest recipients of Australian aid. In total, Australia provides about $1.1 billion per year in aid to the region.
Other recent reports into Australia’s migration intake have noted the risks associated with uncapped migration programs. The Productivity Commission noted the labour market impacts of uncapped temporary migration programs are “poorly understood” in a September report. In November, the Committee for Economic Development proposed a “rebalancing” of Australia’s migrant intake away from uncapped temporary migration.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is expected to respond to the Productivity Commission report in 2017.